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Steampunk opera

We're off to see the "bondage sofa".

The Magic Bells is just one of the steampunk-style props made for the new production
The Magic Bells is just one of the steampunk-style props made for the new production

Already this morning, designer Simon Higlett has shown me some of his ideas for Scottish Opera's new production of Mozart's The Magic Flute. We've seen the serpent (nicknamed "Sid", I'm told), the set and the costume for the Queen of the Night. Now the pair of us are trooping through the bowels of the company's production studios at Spiers Lock in Glasgow to find a chaise longue that belongs to the character Monostatus. "It's called the seduction chaise. It's like a big corset," explains Higlett as we come face-to-cushion with a sofa that is all red plush and carved human feet. "Strange little fetish feet," he adds.

When it comes to show and tell, opera loves the show part. We are a few weeks ahead of The Magic Flute's unveiling at the Theatre Royal but, even in various states of readiness, the props and costumes of this new version are evidence of that. They are also evidence of what's unique about this latest attempt. In a sense, the bondage sofa is a bit of a blind(fold). Sex is a constant in opera, after all. What's different this time is that Higlett's take on The Magic Flute can best be described as the "steampunk" version.

For those of you at this point shouting "Come again?", don't fret. You know what steampunk means even if you think you don't. You've seen it already. Maybe you watched Martin Scorsese's last film, Hugo. Maybe you've glimpsed Will Smith's (admittedly not very good) Hollywood blockbuster Wild Wild West. And if not, surely you caught the Olympics opening ceremony and the Paralympics closing ceremony? All, to some degree or other, can be classed as steampunk.

"Steampunk is a really tricky phrase," suggests Higlett, "because people don't know what it means. It's Victorian futurism, I think."

Indeed. It's Victoriana merged with steam-driven computers, where no-one gets electricity bills because no-one has invented electricity. Imagine a world derived from the wilder dreams of Jules Verne, gene-spliced with the nightmares of Heath Robinson, and you're halfway there. In this particular operatic case, it's a world where the opera's priests are in fact scientists with headlamps in their top hats, where the ladies in the chorus are Victorian-era nurses, where the boys who descend from the sky are angelic clockwork automatons complete with flying umbrellas (Higlett wants you to know he designed them six months before the Olympics opening ceremony) and where the serpent is a huge steam-powered mechanical snake, all metal and hose.

Higlett has designed The Magic Flute once before. Then, he went for a "semi-Nazi" approach. This time around, he's gone for broke, with a grand, gaudy spectacle that mixes up influences as diverse as science fiction, Victorian music hall comedians, Wallace and Gromit (honest) and, when it comes to the costume for The Queen of the Night, even a spot of Alexander McQueen.

"It was really difficult, this one," he admits as we leaf through his costume drawings. "I think it's one of the most challenging operas to design, because I don't quite know what it's about."

Along with the opera's director, Sir Thomas Allen, Higlett had imagined doing the opera in the 19th century and even in a contemporary setting, before he settled on Victorian sci-fi. "Steampunk was our big breakthrough. I was aware of it in various forms but I had no idea quite how much there is out there. And as soon as I found that I thought, 'Wow, that's a great way of doing it'. And I think they were fairly delighted here because it's an interesting take on it and one that hasn't been done before."

"It was me that gave them the idea," head of costume John Liddel tells me later. "Get that down. Simon was already talking about the inventiveness of the Victorian period and inventions and engineers. I said to Simon, 'What you want is steampunk.' I kind of explained it to him, and five seconds later he's Googling 'steampunk'. So I can claim credit for sewing that seed."

Liddel is a fastidious, elegant man of a certain age. By sight alone he's not an obvious fan of a genre that appeals to gothy sci-fi types. But don't judge by appearances. "Although I am by nature a very conservative man, I keep my finger on the pulse of all kinds of culture to do with clothing," he says.

Liddel's department is (literally) at the cutting edge of the designer's dreams, the edge where they take form. Across the hall, LED lights are being pushed through netting and pleating to provide the required twinkliness for the Queen of the Night and the three ladies. "We had to take it to the toilet to test," says Higlett.

There's an appropriateness to that, actually. Because however gaudy the design of this opera, it is realised in wood and wire and sweat. Downstairs in the props department, Alastair Ewer is in his overalls. "I suppose what we do is try to turn the designer's imagination into a reality," says Scottish Opera's head of props. "The main challenge of the show is the style. Everything you see on stage is very much a bespoke item. It's not the sort of thing you can find off the shelf."

This is the key. Opera design is – despite its excess – the art of the possible. For all the grandeur of Higlett's designs, he's aware they have to be practical. "You've got to fit this idea to the text." And to the theatre space. "Many times the opera calls for trap doors and we don't have any. In Mozart's time, theatres were equipped with flying machines and moving parts which they took completely for granted. They could cope with three boys descending from the clouds in a flying machine. It was easy. It's quite hard for us to do that now, quite expensive and full of health and safety problems. But we really wanted the three boys and we really wanted them to fly, and it's tough to do that. To get 12-year-old boys to hang from a harness and sing. But we're going to go for it."

Going for it could be the mantra for Scottish Opera. "This is quite a challenge but I think they're all having a good time," says Higlett. "I think the props guys are really loving it and wardrobe is too, combining lots of different skills; so the electricians are involved in the dresses as well, which isn't usual. Great fun to do."

It's proof of something else too, perhaps. Scottish Opera is not one of the biggest opera companies, but it has ambitions to be one of the best. Maybe it already is. Last year it staged The Rake's Progress with John Macfarlane designing. "He was so impressed, I think, by my team, by the skills of the people who work here, that he wanted us to become involved with the production he was doing at the Met in New York, which we regarded as a great compliment," says Liddel. "Small though Scottish Opera is, we're at that level."

The Magic Flute opens at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow on Wednesday, with performances on October 19, 21, 23, 25 and 27 to follow. It will then tour to Aberdeen, Inverness, Edinburgh and Belfast. For details visit www.scottishopera.org.uk

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